To say that Sonic the Hedgehog has had a rough history ever since he made the transition into 3D is more than a little bit of an understatement. From games that were decent in their day but aged horribly (Sonic Adventure) to flat-out stinkers (Sonic Boom: The Rise of Lyric), Sonic has become something of a joke.
It finally seemed like Sonic the Hedgehog would make his triumphant return to greatness in 2017. Not only did the series receive a new, 16-bit sidescroller in the form of Sonic Mania, but it also received something of a follow-up to 2011’s Sonic Generations, one the few 3D entries the series could be proud of.
When Sonic Mania was released during the Summer, it really seemed like this was to be the year of the hedgehog, as Sonic Mania captured the very essence of Sonic’s best outings and created a fun and creative successor to the Genesis titles we’ve all waited over two decades for. But alas, despite being the “fastest thing alive,” Sonic just can’t seem to keep his momentum. All the good will established through Mania has seemingly run straight into a brick wall with Sonic Forces, a title whose potential seems continuously squandered through a rushed, unpolished execution.
Like Generations, Sonic Forces looks to combine both 2D and 3D Sonic gameplay. As in the 2011 game, players take control of either pot-bellied “Classic Sonic” whose stages are strictly 2D, or the trying-way-too-hard-to-be-cool Modern Sonic, whose stages switch between a 2D and 3D perspective.
Modern Sonic is equipped with a homing attack, which really only makes things feel like mindless button-mashing, since you just have to repeatedly hit the button to blast through enemies who can’t do anything against it. What really hurts Modern Sonic’s stages, however, are the sections that have Sonic blasting through a stage in 3D perspectives, largely because you can’t make out what’s in front of you until you crash into it. You’d be surprised just how often you slam into a robot and lose rings because you thought it was a speed booster, and many of the deaths you’ll encounter feel more attributed to an inability to see what’s ahead, as opposed to player error.
It should come as no surprise that Classic Sonic’s stages are the highlight of the game. Classic Sonic retains the “drop dash” from Sonic Mania, though he doesn’t control as smoothly as his recent 16-bit counterpart. Classic Sonic’s stages benefit from the 2D perspective and actually being able to see what’s in Sonic’s path, but better still is that you actually feel like you’re doing something more than pushing forward and spamming the homing attack. The Classic Sonic stages may not stack up to anything from Sonic Mania (or even Generations, for that matter), but at least they actually feel like there’s something to them.
But wait a minute, a third playable character joins the Sonics this time around, in the form of the player’s own created avatar. Yes, it appears as though Sega has been paying attention to the countless, eye-rolling Sonic OCs on Deviantart, and has given players the ability to make their characters (somewhat) canon. You can choose a species for your avatar (including hedgehogs, dogs, cats, wolves, and others), select different eyes, gloves, shoes, etc. The character customization is somewhat limited, but you gain more customizable items by performing well in the stages and meeting certain requirements.
Though the prospect of playing as your own character actually had some potential to add a new twist to Sonic gameplay, the levels in which you play as your avatar are perhaps the weakest of the lot. Instead of customizing abilities to make your avatar actually feel like a Sonic character, your avatar is instead equipped with a grappling hook and a weapon, the latter of which can be swapped out in between levels with any other weapons you’ve managed to unlock.
This is where things start to go off the rails. These abilities just aren’t fun. The hook basically works like a stiffer version of Modern Sonic’s homing attack, while all the weapons are just overpowered moves that you can just spam on mindless enemies who stand in place and pose no real threat.
The avatar stages play closer to Modern Sonic’s, which means they also suffer from annoying perspectives in 3D sections. What’s all the worse is that even the 2D sections with the avatar get muddled with how small your character often ends up on the screen. And when clunky wall-jumping mechanics are suddenly introduced late in the game, it brings whatever fun the avatar stages had to a dead stop.
One of the worst aspects of Sonic Forces is its plot. Somehow, Dr. Eggman from the Modern Sonic dimension has found the Phantom Ruby from Sonic Mania, and has used its power to create a super being called Infinite. The ruby – and subsequently, Infinite – possesses the ability to alter reality, being able to create replicas of past Sonic villains Shadow the hedgehog, Metal Sonic, Chaos and Zavok (and no one else apparently, as Infinite just keeps recycling those four).
Anyway, Infinite defeats Sonic the Hedgehog in battle, and the famous blue hedgehog is believed to be dead by his friends (before his survival is unceremoniously revealed on the map screen…yeah). Turns out Sonic’s been captured, and in is absence, Dr. Eggman has finally succeeded in taking over the world. Knuckles now leads the resistance against Dr. Eggman, and has recruited the small army of goofy animal characters that have been introduced to the series over the years (not that most of these characters even matter, seeing as they only ever seem to show up to, well, show up). The player’s avatar is the “rookie” of the resistance, and Classic Sonic shows up after being sucked into a wormhole in Sonic Mania. Together, the resistance plans to rescue Sonic, defeat Eggman’s forces, stop Infinite, and bring freedom back to their planet.
The plot is just far too serious for its own good. There was a time when Sonic games being more story heavy was at least a novel concept, but the plots of the series have become something of a bad joke with how cheesy and forced they are, and Sonic Forces might be one of the worst offenders. I don’t have a problem with serious storylines, but considering this is a series about a cartoon hedgehog who runs really fast and fights robots, seeing it trying to be so serious and edgy really just makes it feel silly. It is possible to make meaningful stories with cartoony characters, but trying to turn Sonic the Hedgehog into something so dramatic just doesn’t work.
Sonic Forces isn’t all bad, however. Along with the Classic Sonic stages bringing some fun to the table (though also reminding you that you could be playing Sonic Mania), the game looks great visually, and its musical score is actually quite good (just turn the volume down a bit when it comes to the vocal tracks). But whenever Sonic Forces starts to look like it’s getting better, it ends up stumbling and wasting its potential. Along with all the gameplay fumbles, the level design is nothing special, and the boss fights are particularly unmemorable (just catch up to them and spam that homing attack some more).
Sonic has certainly been in worse games than this. But Sonic Forces showcases many of the attributes that have lead to the series’ drastic fall from grace. And seeing as it’s coming off the heels of the exceptional Sonic Mania, the shortcomings of Forces are only magnified all the more.
If given some extra development time and polish, Sonic Forces could have been pretty good. As it is, well… it’s a 3D Sonic game.